These next articles weren't numbered originally. I hope to make them more searchable by doing so now. One of the key execs at Disney Junior has said to me more than once that she appreciates the fact that I pitch shows instead of just gags, a group of characters or a character design. I find that weird. What are the other guys doing?
Back at Disney, I was developing ideas for a musical Jeckyl & Hyde, direct to video feature. But I sensed original productions were going nowhere in competition with the never ending parade of sequels so I volunteered to return to TV on a HERCULES series. I loved mythology, the superhero side, the irreverence and the design sense of the feature that was still being animated. Plus I'd be working with Bob Schooleyand Mark Mccorkle, partners on many of my projects. (This was well before they created KIM POSSIBLE.)
We looked at the movie and saw that the best fit for The Disney Afternoon would be to use the teen Hercules instead of making a sequel to the movie. (Although it would've been cool to do a big action series). We used Hercules' trainer, Phil, and the muse with the broadest personality to act as competing mentors to the boy. We pitched to Michael Eisner, he gave his blessing and we had a greenlight... for about five minutes.
That's when Dean Valentine, then head of Walt Disney TV Animation, told us, "You don't have a show yet." We grumbled that Michael Eisner seemed to think we had a show but went ahead and re-examined everything we had done. Because we didn't have a choice. I don't remember him giving us notes beyond that.
That re-examination led to a much stronger idea: young Hercules in high school as an outcast along with his outcast friends, Icarus and Cassandra, brilliantly played by French Stewart and Sandra Bernhard. Turned out to be a beautiful show and one of the best written, thanks to Mark and Bob.
Darkwing Duck had a similar, "negative note" stage of development. Originally it was Double O Duck and a one note spy parody. Jeffrey Katzenberg told me it was a one note spy parody and ordered me to do it over. It became a much stronger, much funnier and fresher series.
Greg Weisman pitched a spin off of the Gummi Bears that featured some of the most entertaining characters who had been featured either as villains or as guest stars. He had a solid setup, great potential for stories and no show. Greg learned his lesson and created the fan favorite Gargoyles.
Each of these early concepts had solid characters and plenty of story potential. What they didn't have was a defining focus, a "franchise," the situation that sets up the sitcom. Your characters need to band together to protect the planet, solve a crime, raise a family, run a business or "try to take over the world." Whatever it is, that situation should put them under pressure, socially, physically or ideologically in a way that will make their choices harder or more extreme.
Darkwing Duck fought crime at the same time as raising an incorrigible daughter who wouldn't stay out of his hero business. That's a richer story mine than just superhero parody. Look for a situation that highlights what you want to do with the series. Our first Hercules pitch was okay, Hercules had to learn to be a hero. We gave him competing teachers, one that pushed physical achievements, one that concerned herself with emotions and his sensitive side. But the high school backdrop made it easier to tell those stories and made it more relatable to the audience. Young Hercules had to defeat monsters while trying to keep his grades up and find a date for the prom or whatever.
"Oh yeah? What about--?" Yes, yes. Series sell without a defining focus. I get it. But selling those is often a matter of relationships and having proved yourself ahead of time. There were hundreds of family sitcoms before The Simpsons. What was the hook that sold it?
James L. Brooks was already a television giant with a distinguished pedigree. He was producing The Tracy Ulman Show and wanted small animated bits that would compliment the show's sketch comedy. He knew Matt Groening's Life in Hell comic strip and called him into pitch. While sitting in the lobby, Groening realized that if he sold his comic strip idea, he'd lose all rights to his life's work (up until that time, anyway). He came up with the idea of doing slices of a family's life with the irreverent attitude of Life in Hell. That intrigued Brooks and they produced a series of shorts. Those shorts showed the potential of the idea, James L. Brooks provided comic security and the network approved the series version of that family which went on the air as The Simpsons. It fell under the very broad comedy of "Life with Wacky or Long Suffering Dad" but became much more.
But barring any high profile relationships you have with the Hollywood Elite, put the extra effort into the material you want to pitch. Put your characters into a metaphorical pressure cooker. The ODD COUPLE is not much of a concept without forcing the opposing personalities into the same apartment. The crew of the original Enterprise were well defined characters and ready for adventure but wouldn't have become cultural icons without their "five year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations..."
So look at your characters and the stories you want to tell then ask yourself, "Is it a show yet?"